A closer look at the socio-economic impact of art biennales and festivals in India

With a crowded calendar of art festivals and biennales this year, we look at the impact of large art festivals on the local economy and culture post COVID-19.

by Shraddha NairPublished on : Dec 23, 2022

The year 2022 witnessed a resurgence of the art festival format. After two years of radio silence, the COVID-19 pandemic finally eased up, enough for all to start visiting their favourite festivals once more. This year saw the resurrection of Art Basel, Manifesta, Documenta, Venice Biennale, Istanbul Biennial, and several others. As the year comes to a close, we look at some ongoing festivals in India like Indian Photo Festival (Hyderabad), Serendipity Arts Festival (Goa), Chennai Photo Biennale (Chennai) and Kochi-Muziris Biennale (Kochi), making headlines. We spoke to the curators, organisers, and artists participating in these festivals, contemplating on how the COVID-19 outbreak has changed the way we experience such large, public events.

In many ways, the COVID-19 pandemic showed us the things that we took for granted. Art festivals were certainly one of them. As we emerge from lockdowns across the globe, many of us have newfound social anxiety, unable to enjoy ourselves in large groups. Some of us have health anxiety, grappling with the exceedingly apparent fragility of life that engulfs us. The rest of us are doubling down on travelling and adventure after being cooped up for too long. How does an art festival cater to all of these groups? When looking at the itineraries of Indian Photo Festival, Serendipity and Kochi-Muziris Biennale, we witnessed each of them accommodating their digital audiences. At the Indian Photo Festival we are seeing many digital exhibitions on their website, as well as most other showcases being documented online too. This is no doubt an advantage of photography, a medium which can be easier to archive than others. There is also an increase in outdoor exhibitions, open-space venues and small-scale satellite events. These smaller events make for more intimate experiences and as a bonus—less anxiety surrounding big crowds.

 Installation view at Indian Photo Festival 2022 | Art biennales and festivals in India 2022| STIRworld
Installation view at Indian Photo Festival 2022; La route des souffles, Breath project , Ana Bloom Image: Courtesy of Indian Photo Festival 2022

 Stepping away from the issues of dealing with customer-facing logistics, a huge obstacle for festival organisers in 2022 was funding. Sponsors were never easy to procure, especially for art festivals and the challenge has only grown since the pandemic, as these have turned into high-risk investments for investors. Will enough people buy tickets to the festival to make the sponsorship worthwhile? Is it safe to risk supporting a public event at a time when large public gatherings are stigmatised due to the pandemic? We spoke to Aquin Mathews, the festival director of the eighth edition of Indian Photo Festival, who said—“Certainly there has been a disruption in art festivals due to the pandemic. Many events took to a virtual format while so many others got cancelled. Many institutions cancelled funding citing COVID as a financial crunch. Everywhere, for sure, festival organisers were struggling. I think they continue to do so… While we continue to struggle for funding, despite the many odds we face, I feel proud that we are able to pull off a fairly impressive festival year after year, even during the pandemic.”

Installation view at Indian Photo Festival 2022 | Art biennales and festivals in India 2022| STIRworld
Viewers at Indian Photo Festival 2022 Image: Courtesy of Indian Photo Festival 2022

Indian Photo Festival (IPF) is a non-profit organisation that  survived through the pandemic by creating online counterparts to the exhibition. Post pandemic, they are emerging at the top by offering a hybrid event model for both offline and online viewers to enjoy their eighth edition. Artists from several countries have featured at IPF 2022, including artists from—India, Canada, US, Poland, Brazil, Switzerland, Australia, Japan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Iran, Romania, Germany, Ukraine and France. IPF was on view till December 19, 2022, but some smaller projects continue to be on view.

Exhibitions like these continue to attract swarms of people domestically and internationally. The audience is a festival’s main source of strength, by taking it all away at once, the pandemic taught us to adapt to new methods of operating in more than one aspect of life. Moving forward, art biennales and triennials will have to create hybrid models to support festivals through economic, social, and political turbulence. Considering this is the first fully public showcase since the pandemic, most festivals have leaned into the offline format with the exception of a few online workshops and exhibitions.

Installation at the Indian Photo Festival 2022 | Art biennales and festivals in India 2022 | STIRworld
Installation at the Indian Photo Festival 2022 Image: Courtesy of Indian Photo Festival 2022

The resilience of festivals will depend not only on its engagement with online communities, but perhaps most importantly on the organisation’s ability to forge deeper connections with local communities. After all, art festivals are responsible for providing a platform for global dialogue through art—an opportunity to engage, inform, and educate. Furthering this idea, Kochi-Muziris Biennale, Serendipity, and others have designed activities for engagement with children as well as with the general public. There has been a small but noteworthy increase in consideration of differently-abled people with some festivals designing interactive workshops. For the 2022 edition, Serendipity included braille notations on exhibition plaques. They also curated a number of showcases in public spaces as well as exhibits like Art Park, in venues like the Post Office Museum and Azad Madian, a memorial made to honour those who fought against the Portuguese colonial rule in the Goa Liberation Movement of the mid 1900s. Serendipity also hosted a number of smaller events in outdoor venues including a series of film screenings titled Andar Baahar curated by Harkat Studios; activities like Eco Walks served to sensitise festival visitors to the cultural and natural heritage of Goa, a necessary practice in order to cultivate a sensitive audience.

Installations at the eighth edition of the Indian Photo Festival | Art biennales and festivals in India 2022| STIRworld
Installations at the eighth edition of the Indian Photo Festival Image: Courtesy of Indian Photo Festival 2022

The IPF takes public intervention further by encapsulating a rotating exhibition in a local bus. Mathews tells us, “As a first, IPF has launched India’s first travelling photo gallery in association with the Telangana State Road Transport Corp (TSRTC). A bus, converted into a photo gallery showcasing photographs will go around Hyderabad and Telangana for the next one year with different themes. This is a step towards increasing awareness about photography and making photography accessible to the masses.” Art is a means of disseminating ideas and perspectives. In India, which has been witnessing several marks on its freedom of press and speech recently, art festivals hold the responsibility of preserving spaces for dialogue and expression through art.

Festival seasons also translate to a flurry of travel, meeting artists and friends, while going on adventurous walks through colourful displays of art, performance, and music. While the excitement of it all is real, so is the impact it creates on its natural and social environment. There are 210 biennials across the world, according to the Biennial Foundation. This is no small number even by itself, let alone triennials and other festivals. Owing to the last-minute postponement of Kochi-Muziris Biennale’s 2022 inauguration, it is worth considering the impact of such festivals on the city and its people. What is the true cost of setting up such expansive showcases? The KMB team stated multiple reasons for postponing the show, including difficult weather. With unpredictable weather becoming an increasing challenge for the world, factoring in such eventualities needs to become a staple inclusion in flexible planning.

An exhibit at Arsenale di Venezia, part of the Venice Biennale 2022 | Art biennales and festivals in India 2022 | STIRworld
An exhibit at Arsenale di Venezia, part of the Venice Biennale 2022 Image: Rui Alves; Courtesy of Unsplash

With all of this said and done, the year of 2022 has undoubtedly revitalised the festival format and reminded us all of the imperative role it plays in the heritage of art itself. Festivals of India, a British Council initiative, conducted an impact study after the third edition of Kochi-Muziris Biennale which welcomed an approximate of 600,000 visitors. It found a positive impact on socio-cultural and economic factors and even noted that the festival’s use of existing buildings aided in the preservation of the structures, setting into motion “a resurgence of heritage structures.” In 2017, KMB commissioned an independent impact study which showed many positive socio-economic benefits to local businesses and audiences. The study showed that 22 per cent of local business owners in Kochi noted their income doubling during the Biennale. The rise in tourism has also benefited homestay owners in the area—95 per cent of whom are Kochi residents. The ‘Biennale effect’ has put Kochi on the art tourism map, with a significant growth in foreign tourists documented since the beginning of KMB in 2012.

Art festivals across the world have been carving a room for themselves, as a significant part of the economy. The Arts and Cultural Production Satellite Account (ACPSA) measured the total economic output for arts and cultural industries of the United States that accounted for $919.7 billion, making up 4.3 per cent of the country’s total GDP in 2019. Creating resilience in the structuring of art festivals could stabilise the growth of this facet of the economy, as it becomes of increasing value. With December coming to a close, we looked back at the highs and lows of this season of biennials and triennials, feeling grateful that India Art Fair 2023 and Sharjah Biennial 15 are yet to come.

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